At TeachMeet Hills in October @cpaterso presented a PechaKucha on marking and grades and how ineffective they are to a student’s learning. That student’s only focus on the grade and its meaning rather than focusing on how to improve.
His idea is that we stop giving marks and grades and focus on the comments and written feedback provided to each student. By making it explicit and detailed student’s will change their learning habits to hopefully focus on how written feedback can assist them to improve their marks.
I was intrigued. Of course, I always provide written feedback but I began to realise from this presentation how even I, have come to automatically define pieces of work by their band, grade or mark. Was it simply easier to do it this way? To categorise my kids? Low socio-economic area, poor academic application and achievement. Was I going to accept that? I was however getting so frustrated when I was writing written feedback. It was because I knew the kids weren’t going to even give it a second look. I lost sight of the value of written feedback and how it should be better utilised by student’s to improve their work. It was easier to lump them with a grade and view them that way, let me be frank about that.
If I made them take a second look however by taking the grade away…Now there’s an idea.
So I decided to experiment. I had two drama classes this year: Year 9 and Year 11. Both classes will continue into 2012. My Year 11 class started Year 12 this term so I felt it was an appropriate time to test this all out.
Kids Can Be Pushy
My Year 9 class had their Playbuilding assessment in Week 4. This is one of the best Drama classes I’ve had in five years of teaching. You can do anything with them and they actually care about their results. They want to do their best. As a result, these kids are pushy and want to know their marks. Something, let me again be honest here, I hadn’t had much experience with until now.
I’d only just been to TeachMeet and was getting my head around how I was going to get this to work. I buckled and gave them feedback sheets with the marking criteria and a mark on it, however I did focus on my comment writing a little more and really linking it back to the marking criteria.
I know the kids read it because a few days later I received an email from one of my student’s “wanting to chat” because she felt she’d let the whole group down and had not performed to her best. This was because she got a 7/10 in performance skills. I knew what she was devastated about. The mark not the comment. The comment just made it feel worse. Kids have no idea how hard it is to get an “A” in Drama. This high achieving kid was mortified. I could tell there would be more anxiety in not giving them the grade than with giving them the grade so I let that one slip.
Failure is Not an Option
My Year 11 class are, well, they’re unique. The whole cohort is unique. They are the first cohort to be stuck with the new school leaving age of 17. They are unmotivated and highly disengaged from learning. Truancy is high and assessment task quality is poor. I knew this when I took them on this year and I wasn’t about to get down to their level and not care just because they didn’t.
It’s been a tough road. Most lessons I was never sure of how many kids I was going to have in a class but now, after fours terms together, at least half that class have learnt to be accountable and take responsibility in group performance situations (a must for the GP in the HSC) and have at least tried to do their best on most written and assessment tasks.
They are still dancing around failure if we want to look at it in terms of bands, grades and marks let’s be frank about this once again.
On the positive side, all of these factors put together make them a perfect group for this experiment. Grades are important to them only because its habit to expect one and I once again, could not, will not allow them to fail their HSC year.
So, their assessment task was to write an essay in 45 minutes (as per the HSC exam). They actually write two in 90 minutes but baby steps here people 🙂
We did a number of practice essays and I told them that I would not be giving them a grade on their practice papers. That they must read the comments and use the feedback to improve their essays. It was as simple as that. I wrote extensive feedback (see photo above). Arrows went everywhere and there were lines crossing out bits and pieces. They sat the exam in class and I marked them.
They were still as expected with some slight, slight, slight improvements. By providing the written feedback however it was clear in my head exactly what I was looking for in the student’s but also where each individual student needed to improve and yes, for many of them it was in the same areas.
Admittedly I did give them their grade in the end and I didn’t ask them whether or not they used the feedback (a note to myself for next time).
I guess what it’s taught me is that yes, marking is boring and tedious. That it is very easy to sit in automatic pilot.
This little experiment was a reminder to me as to why marking is important because I think its easy to lose sight of it amidst everything else that happens in a school day.
It was professional development that cost me nothing but my time and something I hope, come this time next year, when the kids get their HSC Drama marks, will have been well worth it.
What else can I do to improve my kids results? Your comments and suggestions are appreciated.
Visit Cameron’s blog here.
Image Credits: Stop Marking, karlao_dtn, 2011.